Parshat Korach’s main feature is Korach’s rebellion against Moshe’s leadership. Ibn Ezra notes that this rebellion seemingly parallels the Cheit HaEigel in several ways. Most importantly, both occurrences contain a group’s outspoken desire to replace leaders. During the Cheit HaEigel, Bnei Yisrael wanted to find a communal replacement for Moshe, because they feared that he had died on Har Sinai. In rebuking Korach for his accusations, Moshe stated (Bemidbar 16:10), “UVikashtem Gam Kehuna,” “And you also desired the Kehunah,” which had been exclusively Aharon’s. Another similarity is relevance of the firstborns. Due to their part in Cheit HaEigel, the firstborns lost the privilege of serving in the Beit HaMikdash, which was given instead to the Leviim (see Devarim 10:9). Immediately after the first Avodah in the Mishkan, the first Avodah done by Leviim, Korach (himself a Bechor) and 250 other Bechorim led this revolt. Therefore, the theme of leadership appears in both the Cheit HaEigel and Korach’s rebellion through leaders and firstborns, the challenged and the challenging.
The exact actions that Moshe and Aharon take in both incidents are also parallel. Moshe smashed the Luchot when he saw the Maaseh HaEigel, without receiving any instruction from Hashem. When facing Korach, he declared, also without any Nevuah from Hashem, that the earth would open up and swallow Korach. In both instances, Moshe was quick and harsh in his response.
Aharon, on the other hand, was much lighter and more patient in each case. He pretended to go along with the Cheit HaEigel, trying to procrastinate until Moshe would come to Bnei Yisrael’s rescue. Similarly, when a plague threatened Bnei Yisrael after Korach’s rebellion, the Torah states, “Vayaamod Bein HaMeitim UVein HaChaim, VaTei’atzar HaMageifah,” “And [Aharon] stood between the dead and the living, and the plague stopped” (Bemidbar 17:13). Aharon was more concerned with stopping the catastrophe from spreading than with punishing those who started it. Hashem spoke fondly of Aharon for his actions, and made his staff the only one to flower and blossom in the Pesukim following his actions.
What makes a leader? Is it better for a leader to care for individuals and be more tolerant, or is it more important to be very strict in keeping rules and protecting their sanctity? Modern history has shown no definitive answer, and using our new understanding of Moshe’s and Aharon’s different styles of leadership, we can see why. Both approaches to power have roots in the two greatest leaders of Bnei Yisrael. There is no clear winner between the choices. Obviously, it is best for a leader to balance both compassion and firmness, but, quite frequently, the resulting courses of action are mutually exclusive. The best setup, therefore, seems to be to have two different leaders, like Moshe and Aharon, acting in their own natural ways which collectively form a cohesive unit of power.